Lost at Sea

Editor Cole Campbell has left in his dinghy, and the mutineers at the Post-Dispatch are jubilant. Now, the flagship is listing and the crew has no idea where it's headed.

McClellan says readers routinely gripe about a daily paper. "We're almost like institutional food in college at the dormitory," he says. "Everybody complains about the local paper." And the past mystique of the Pulitzer-owned Post haunts the present.

"There was a time, 40 or 50 years ago, when the Post-Dispatch was supposed to be one of the best newspapers in the world, and then it was one of the best papers in country, and y'know, now it's, y'know, it's a paper," the Post columnist says. "But when I travel around and look at other papers, I see that some of them are better, but not that many. It isn't like we're disgraceful."

For Michael Pulitzer, there's one criticism that he hears most often. "The knock that I hear on the Post-Dispatch most frequently is that we're aloof from the community," says Pulitzer. "I think we've come a long way. Our commitment is to be the No. 1 news source in the St. Louis area.... As for coverage of news, that means to be more tied in with the community. We've increased zone coverage."

"I thought the paper was sleepy when I got there. When they brought in (Cole) Campbell, I had hopes it would be less sleepy, but instead it just got dumb."
—Philip Kennicott, former editorial writer
Joe Rocco
"I thought the paper was sleepy when I got there. When they brought in (Cole) Campbell, I had hopes it would be less sleepy, but instead it just got dumb." —Philip Kennicott, former editorial writer

For Post alum Porter, that criticism is long irrelevant, a memory of a more storied past rather than an accurate description of the current product.

"Saying the Post is aloof is like saying the Post is great. That's about 20 years out of date, 30 years. It was aloof. I don't think it's aloof now," says Porter. "You can draw the distinction between being aloof and today's slovenliness and superciliousness. It's not so much that the Post is aloof; it's just not with it."

Part of the internal problem with the paper may be a form of journalistic sclerosis. When pay is good but the product is under par, people who have a drive to do good work may become dissatisfied and head elsewhere despite the financial rewards of staying put. Sometimes those more concerned about a paycheck and less stressed about poor work are more apt to stay.

After eight years, an experienced reporter has a "top minimum" pay of at least $1,054 per week, or $54,808 per year. Among Guild papers, the Post's pay scale is beaten only by the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Boston Globe, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

One staffer says he came from what was considered a better paper but had to work harder and was paid less. "And the managing editor was right down everybody's throats. He had his eye on the ball all the time. But at the same time, there was a level of professionalism. Everybody expected more of themselves and everybody else as a result. That's missing at the Post-Dispatch."

So part of the blame, according to this Post employee, is with the man or woman in the mirror. And, of course, Cole Campbell wasn't the only editor in the building.

"It's bad editors, bad editors," the reporter says. "There's no question about it. People who want to change things feel like there's no place they can go. There's no place you can go where you can take your concerns. That's bad. That's not just Cole Campbell -- that runs throughout. At a good paper, there are a lot of places you can go. There's checks and balances all through the system, because everybody has high expectations for themselves and others. I don't think that exists at the Post-Dispatch, for the most part."

Kennicott says the paper could use some more energy: "I thought the paper was sleepy when I got there. When they brought in Campbell, I had hopes it would be less sleepy, but instead it just got dumb."

Now that Campbell is gone, the wait for a new editor has left the newsroom without a clear hierarchy of command. Many are hoping for an old-school traditional editor. "They should do everything they can to find a brilliant workaholic city-desk-type editor who would come in and run the place with an iron grip and just report stories," one ex-reporter says. "I hope they don't get any more philosophers."

One observer says the staff needs to get busy and dispense with the organizational angst, summing it up this way: "Fewer meetings, more stories."

Carolyn Tuft is hoping for an "editor-in-chief who's a dyed-in-the-wool newspaper person, who knows what news is and doesn't use the latest journalism fad to try and fix the paper."

"People like Carolyn are the heroes of that place," says Kennicott. "They have had their own work tangibly lessened in importance and curtailed, and yet they've stuck with it. They're the people who will save the paper if anybody can, if they get an editor who knows that you don't mess around with reporters of that caliber. You give them all the pens and notebooks they can carry and just send them out."

Either way, close to 300,000 copies of the Post will head out into the abyss 365 times a year. That's the thing about a daily newspaper -- every day it disappoints, but every day there's a chance for redemption.

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